He sees dead people, only this time it’s funny. That’s the premise of “Ghost Town,” which is more “Topper” than “The Sixth Sense” and amusing enough to give cultish TV favorite Ricky Gervais the bigscreen breakout role that until now had eluded him.
Gervais stars as Bertram Pincus, a New York City dentist who might be called people-averse. Sardonic and standoffish, he avoids human contact while brusquely dismissing everything and everyone he considers foolish, an adjective he’d apply fairly universally. When he undergoes a colonoscopy, however, he dies on the table for a few minutes and after being revived finds himself able to see the host of ghosts ambling around the city seeking to release themselves from the unfinished business that’s keeping them here among the living.
It’s a power he doesn’t want, because the spirits all pester him to help them. The most insistent is the slick, obnoxious salesman—and erstwhile adulterer—Frank Herlihy (Greg Kinnear), recently carried off in a slapstick accident, who wants Bertram to break up the romance between his ex-wife Gwen (Tea Leoni), who happens to live in the same apartment building as our hero, and Richard (Billy Campbell), a human rights lawyer he considers a gold-digger. The dentist initially refuses, but finally succumbs. Naturally he falls for her himself. But as you can well imagine, the course of true love is not easy for a fellow like this, especially when Frank’s around to sabotage his efforts to woo Gwen.
It wouldn’t be fair to reveal too much about the plot turns, even if (apart from a sudden surprise near the end) they’re all fairly conventional. What sets “Ghost Town” apart isn’t the structure, it’s mostly the dialogue, especially that assigned to the cheerily dyspeptic Gervais, which evinces a tart wit that suggests that the star himself had a major hand in fashioning it, though he’s not credited. And he delivers it with a practiced aplomb that makes you laugh even when the material’s not top-tier.
But he’s not left to do the job alone. Leoni’s gangly charm is very winning—she can pull off even a bit with a gigantic mutt that Gwen adopts—and Kinnear is light on his feet as the not so dear nor very departed Frank. And there’s a great supporting cast that includes Aasif Mandvi as Bertram’s office partner and Dana Ivey and Alan Ruck as two of the other spirits who beg Pincus for help. Writer-director David Koepp has even fashioned a hilarious opening reel involving Bertram’s hospital visits (first for the operation, then later to discover what went on in the operating room), in which Kristen Wiig positively shines as his ditzy gastroenterologist but she’s ably abetted by Aaron Treit as the ultra-young anesthesiologist, Audrie Neenan as a surly admitting nurse and Michael-Leon Wooley as the burly hospital lawyer. Matters at Pincus’ office are equally secure in the able hands of Bridget Mahoney as a dippy receptionist and Claire Lautier as a talkative patient who turns out to have a connection with one of the spirits.
Koepp’s helming is equally sure-footed; he lets Gervais be Gervais, but at the same time maintains a crisp clip for the goings-on. The production is top-notch from the technical standpoint, too, with Fred Murphy’s cinematography making good use of the Big Apple locations and Sam Seig’s editing keeping things moving nimbly.
Inevitably, of course, “Ghost Town” goes soft in the last act, with Pincus finally learning that people need people and becoming a more caring individual. Even Kinnear’s ghostly character experiences a change of heart. But the picture never descends into bathos, as might easily have happened.
The result is a comedy that’s genuinely funny without being gross, and genuinely warm without becoming maudlin, a winning combination of sour and sweet that’s both tasty and satisfying. It may feature a lot of dead people, but “Ghost Town” has a lot of comic life.